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Schools on fire: how sex education conspiracy theories led to arson attacks in Belgium

‘Right-wing groups hijacked information to scare people’

Welcome to the Impact newsletter, the home of feminist journalism. This week, we’re exploring how the campaign against sex education turned violent in Belgium. Only have a minute to read? Here’s today’s edition in brief:
  • 🇧🇪 Conspiracy theorists and far-right groups in French-speaking Belgium have whipped up a frenzy against comprehensive sexuality education.
  • 🏫 A family planning expert explains how viral disinformation campaigns have led to schools being torched.
  • 📣 We want to know how people learn about sex and relationships. Share your experience and it could be published in a future edition of the Impact newsletter.

This article is part of ‘The Talk’, a series of stories, each produced by a different newsroom, on the state of sex education around the world. Stories will be published by the Impact newsletter, CNN As Equals, Kontinentalist, Unbias the News, Nadja Media, Suno India and BehanBox throughout the month of October.

If you want to stay up to date on feminist news from around the world, follow Impact on Instagram and LinkedIn.

The back-to-school routine should mean freshly sharpened pencils, newly stuffed backpacks and butterflies of anticipation about what the new year will hold. But last month, the Belgian school year began very differently — with arson, protest and conspiracy theories.

A plan to roll out comprehensive sexuality education in the French-speaking part of the country has been set upon by a combination of far-right agitators, Covid conspiracy theorists and religious groups, who kicked off a wave of disinformation on social media about what the programme contained. Rumours spread that the people delivering the programme, known as Evras (relationships, emotions and sexuality education), would show children pornography in class, teach them to masturbate, and convince them to transition gender. In response, thousands of angry parents have protested in central Brussels, and multiple schools have been torched and vandalised with anti-sex education slogans.

Invoking common conspiracy tropes, Alain Escada, the president of the French far-right Catholic organisation Civitas, has called the programme “a globalist project which wants to impose a new sexual world order.”

In reality, the new scheme merely guaranteed that a minimum number of Evras sessions, which were already taking place around the country, would be provided in all schools. Yet the effects of the disinformation campaign have spread throughout the country and even over the border into France, where parents have been led to believe incorrectly that the programme is being implemented in French schools.

The attacks in Wallonia and Brussels are a local manifestation of a global problem — recent attempts to introduce comprehensive sexuality education have been hit by pushback from far-right groups in the US, Nigeria, and Guatemala among other countries. These campaigns against sex education are often part of the same constellation of far-right movements that oppose LGBTQIA+ and reproductive rights. And though sex education has always been met with resistance from traditional religious groups, this new wave of backlash is fuelled by viral disinformation on social media with the potential to reach millions more parents as a result.

Yet experts say that teaching young people about sex and relationships, including consent, is essential for preventing sexual violence. The international reproductive rights campaign group SheDecides describes comprehensive sexuality education as “a missing piece in achieving gender equality for all.”

How did things get so out of hand in Belgium, and what can we do to counter harmful disinformation? Frédéric Brichau, a coordinator at the Willy Peers Family Planning Centre, which offers Evras sessions in Belgian schools, spoke to the Impact newsletter about the attacks on sexuality education in Belgium, and what we can do to fight back. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Megan Clement: Can you explain what has happened in Belgium over the last few weeks with regard to sex education?

Frédéric Brichau: The various governments in the French-speaking part of Belgium have reached an agreement to make it compulsory for schools to offer Evras activities. It’s two hours in the sixth form, two hours in the fourth form and four times one hour in special education by operators who are recognised as being professional, neutral, non-judgemental and non-dogmatic.

It was during the voting process that some extreme right-wing groups reacted, and hijacked some of the information to scare people and to destabilise them. We knew there was a risk of this happening. We saw how these movements were scaring ordinary parents by saying “Be careful, look what they’re going to do to your children. It’s a disgrace, it’s a disaster, it’s dangerous.” But behind this, we could also see women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ movements were clearly being targeted, because in addition to the misinformation about Evras, there was also a predominantly anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-abortion discourse. The risk was the contamination of ordinary parents who were going to be frightened because they didn’t necessarily have the means to find out exactly what was going on, and who were going to hear something that was not true over and over again.

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Megan Clement: I’ve seen quite a bit of backlash against comprehensive sexuality education in different countries around the world. But what surprises me about what’s happening in Belgium at the moment is the role of disinformation actors. Normally, the Catholic Church and other religious groups are against comprehensive sexuality education, but in this case, I have the impression that it’s bigger than that.

Frédéric Brichau: The people who circulate misinformation are a bit of a mixed bag, in terms of beliefs and religions. Once you have the most extreme taking action, it can have a snowball effect. I think we potentially have people in the population who are not of a particular philosophical persuasion, or who may even be secular, who are caught up in the movement.

These movements are playing the emotional card and scaring people by touching on what’s most precious to parents. They say, “Watch out, people are talking about paedophilia in the context of Evras”. So governments are accused of trying to get children to have sex, to want to have sex, something that is very frightening indeed for parents. Conspiracy movements have been around for a long time, but their impact is relatively recent. They have found echoes in the Covid crisis, which at the moment is discrediting everything official, everything to do with authority and everyone in the media.

It’s very difficult to counter. There is a reference book called the Evras guide, which is aimed at professionals. It’s over 300 pages long. When they quote a so-called extract from this guide and you ask them “But have you read it?” They say, “No, I don’t want to read that”. So they say what’s supposedly in the Evras guide, but at the same time they haven’t read it and they don’t want to read it because they think they’re being lied to anyway.

That’s what’s so difficult when faced with these extremists. I don’t think we’ll necessarily change their minds, and that’s not necessarily the aim, but on the other hand, they do find echoes in a population that doesn’t necessarily share their initial ideas — whether extreme, right-wing or religious — or at any rate not in a radical or extremist way, and they find themselves infected, because misinformation is spreading. They’re trying to circulate it en masse to make it true, even though it’s not.

Megan Clement: Is this a dangerous moment for professionals in the field of education?

Frédéric Brichau: We’re not panicking, and we’re not under extraordinary professional stress, but there have been six or eight schools where there have been fires and at least three-quarters of them are very clearly linked to the situation. So yes, I think there is a concern, first and foremost, for schools. We know that in education, there are always parents who grumble, and unfortunately there are some who are violent, since we have teachers who are attacked following a punishment handed out or a reprimand. So we can’t rule that out. On social networks, we see a huge amount of violence in the words of people hiding behind a keyboard. In family planning centres, we’ve taken on new staff who are perhaps just out of university, so who don’t yet have experience of Evras, and they’re thinking “Oh dear, I was happy to be able to work in a family planning centre, but now, given what’s going on, it might be dangerous.”

I think there’s too much media coverage. There’s also an illusory effect from the movement, because as they’ve been very noisy and very active on social networks, you get the impression that there are a lot of them, but in fact it’s a lot of the same people repeating and repeating. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t others behind them who think a bit like them. Personally, that’s where I’m most wary: it’s the people we don’t hear from as much and who don’t have the ability to sort out what’s true from what’s not.

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Megan Clement: I don’t think we talk enough about comprehensive sexuality education among feminists, but it’s important all the same. Can you explain why comprehensive sexuality education is part of the fight for gender equality?

Frédéric Brichau: First of all, comprehensive sexuality education teaches respect for others and for difference. Through respect and this principle of equality, we are part of the fight against domestic violence, because we’re deconstructing relationships that are unequal. We’re trying to move towards more egalitarian relationships between individuals. We’re not there to dispense knowledge like a teacher. That’s why when people say, “These are sexuality courses,” we say, “No, we’re not here to give a course.” We come with tools to stimulate reflection and debate that help to combat discrimination, inequality, domestic violence, sexual violence and violence against individuals.

Megan Clement: What should parents who are worried about comprehensive sex education do instead of turning to social media or the Internet?

Frédéric Brichau: I think that a parent who, in all good faith, is worried because they’ve heard certain information circulating, they should calmly go and ask questions of the main players — go and see what’s going on at school. They can ask, “Are you already doing Evras? How are things going?” They can go to a family planning centre and ask. If they’re curious, they’ll be well received. If they come in shouting indiscriminately about paedophile criminals and things like that, there’s no room for discussion. But someone who knocks on our door and says “Listen, I heard something about Evras, I didn’t quite understand. What exactly do you do?” We can take some time to explain. We like to talk about our work. There’s really no problem with that.

In fact, I think we’re going to have to do this kind of exercise in certain schools or with certain parents because we’ve been so discredited that we’re going to have to reassure the public a little and explain to them what’s really going on. We have to show them that we are perfectly normal people with specific skills, and that we use these skills for the well-being of children and young people, not to do illegal things.

Because we mustn’t forget that what they’re saying we’re doing in all this fake news about Evras is an activity that is completely illegal. Showing pornographic images to a child is illegal.

Share your experience

How did you learn about sex? Did you ever get ‘The Talk’, and what was it like? What did you wish you had been told? I learned about sex from a rather eye-opening pop-up book my mother brought home from work (she’s a sexual health researcher) but that’s a story for another time. As for school, I was never taught about consent or healthy relationships, but I was taught how to hide my periods from boys and men.

We all learn about sex and relationships differently depending on our age, the country where we live, our cultural background and our families. As part of ‘The Talk’, a series of stories on the state of sex education around the world produced by different newsrooms, we want to hear from people about their experiences with sexuality education.

Share your story by hitting reply to this email. Responses can be anonymous and could be published in a future edition of the Impact newsletter.

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